Charreadas Grow In Popularity Despite Hurdles
SAN DIEGO -- At the end of their workday, a group of men gathered for weekly practice in San Ysidro, just north of the California-Mexico border.
Filemon Jara rode atop his horse, Rojillo, lasso in hand. He practiced the colas, or bull wrestling, one of the nine traditional moves that require the charro, or cowboy, to wrestle a bull by the tail as he rides beside him. The practice originated in the haciendas of 16th-Century Mexico, in what’s now large chunks of the Southwestern United States.
But today, it’s become increasingly difficult for these charros to find suitable land to practice and perform.
A month ago, council members in the city of Escondido took on the issue. After 39 years of leasing city-owned property for only $1 a month, the charros now face eviction from the Escondido arena or "lienzo" where they hold their charreadas. The city says they need the land to store maintenance equipment.
"I don’t know why they've asked us to leave our practice site," said Jesus Bañuelos, president of the Escondido Charro Association. "We've never had any problems, and I’ve always followed my contract and the city’s laws."
This conflict between charros, their neighbors, and cities hosting them has surfaced in recent years throughout Southern California even as the game grows in popularity. There are more than 100 charro associations in the U.S., most of them in Southwestern states.
"Escondido could become in Southern California a center for these types of equestrian activities, because people coming from Mexico have taken charro sports all over the country," said Julian Nava, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico under President Jimmy Carter. "I mean, there are lienzos in Michigan, there's a lienzo in Maine, for heaven's sake! So it's becoming a national sport."
But there’s more than just land standing in the way of charreadas’ mass appeal. Animal rights groups say the animals are subject to injury. And if the game is to succeed like its cousin, the American rodeo, charros say they will have to gain the support of people outside the Mexican community.
On a sunny Super Bowl Sunday, Filemon Jara traveled two hours north to a big charreada just outside Los Angeles. He came in full charro gear: a pair of tight pants and an olive green shirt embroidered with his team's initials - SY - for San Ysidro.
"Here, once you are born into the sport or you're brought up practicing the sport, you always jump in the big leagues," said Jara. "There are also no socio-economic divisions - working class people, upper class people, professionals - it's almost like a community that comes together for these activities."
But not anyone can afford this sport, and that limits its widespread appeal. Keeping a horse can mean up to $300 a month, and most charros have to have a good job to support their hobbies.
Jara is a teacher, and the first in his family to graduate from college. He fell in love with the sport at 27, late for a common charro, he says. Today, he's here alongside his dad and two brothers - all of them charros.
As this charreada comes to a close, the next teams prepare for the second competition of the day. Among them are the Escondido charros, who have become something of a cause celebre in the Southern California scene. They're still without their own arena, but are hoping to be relocated to another site in the next few months. A vote is expected at Escondido's City Hall on March 2nd.